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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 September, 2003, 10:43 GMT 11:43 UK
Francois Pienaar - 1995
Francois Pienaar receives the Webb Ellis trophy from former President Nelson Mandela
Pienaar epitomised the hopes of the rainbow nation
South Africa's return to the sporting fray was epitomised in 1995 when the "rainbow nation" hosted the World Cup.

When captain Francois Pienaar received the ultimate prize from then President Nelson Mandela, he realised the hopes of a nation.

Here Pienaar talks about leading his country to victory in a tense and low-scoring final against New Zealand.

You may not have been one of the favourites to win but was there a sense of expectation playing at home?

I think the expectation came from within the team rather than from outside. Emotionally, the South African public was hoping we'd do well.

But we had a young team and had just come out of isolation.

We'd had a good season but Australia were the overwhelming favourites. They had been unbeaten for 12 months so they were far and away the fancied team.

Did you think the team was good enough to win?

It might sound corny but I definitely did. I had a lot of confidence.

You just had to look at our record under Kitch Christie. We went abroad to the southern hemisphere and had comfortable wins there and were finding our feet.

The nucleus of the side was the Transvaal side which had just gone 42 games unbeaten and won the Super 10, so there was no doubting we had the talent.

You hardly had the easiest start though taking on Australia in the opening game.

It was a very important game. A lot of people think that New Zealand were favourites back then but it was Australia.

They had a fantastic team. You just had to look at their back division - Gregan, Lynagh, Campese, Horan, Little.

It was a phenomenal list of players but our attention to details was formidable and our wonderful coaching staff got us into shape for that opening win.

When did the pressure start taking its toll on you in the tournament?

When playing rugby, there's pressure in every game, but it is that much more when you get into knockout stages.

It takes real character, and you have to make sure fear of failure doesn't set in. We almost didn't take our chances, and almost lost to the French.

What about the semi-final against France? At one stage it looked as though the weather was going to put an end to it.

If that game hadn't taken place we would have been out of the World Cup. It would have been cancelled and the team with the worst disciplinary record would have been out.

Locals try to help clear the deluge of water ahead of South Africa's semi-final against France
The weather nearly ended the Springboks' World Cup dream

That would have been totally unfair as the sending off incident (James Dalton) against Canada was very harsh. They were the aggressors.

What did we have to prove? We knew we would beat Canada so that fear of the game being cancelled had an effect on us.

We were quietly confident of getting the game played. We phoned weather stations across the world including Disney and they reassured us there would be a break in conditions.

France had been lucky against Scotland but that was good for us as those conditions would have suited the Scots much more than us.

But against France we built up a nice lead and thought "if we hold onto this, we're in the final".

It was the worst thing that could have happened. We started protecting our lead rather than attacking it and I thought Abdel Benazzi had scored right at the end.

I pulled my head out of the ruck to see how much time we had left to score. But referee Derek Bevan was in a perfect position and Benazzi was literally a couple of centimetres short.

What about the day of the final? Was it tense from start to finish?

It was incredibly tense and emotional - some of the guys were physically ill.

You can't imagine but it's such an important hour-and-a-half in your life. Then the pressure was on. Can South Africa do it?

I tossed and turned a bit the night before. I needed four to five good hours and got it but I was constantly thinking about the game.

When I woke up, I guess I thought of lifting the trophy but the focus was on the game, not the outcome.

When we got to the ground, there were sirens and screaming. It was like a scene out of a movie. It was then a relief to finally play and get the fanfare over.

Was the game a bit of a blur or are there specific moments that stand out?

No, not at all. It's still very clear in my mind. I thought the haka was a great moment. I love it. It's incredibly special.

In fact, as was every minute of the game. It would be unfair to single out a minute or so.

The defining moment was Joel Stransky's winning drop-goal. Was that a moment of sheer elation?

To start with, it was the wrong side of the field to have a drop-goal from a set phase.

Joel Stransky slots over the match-winning drop-goal
Stransky sealed the win with a drop-goal

I called a blind-side move with Ruben Kruger to set an opportunity for Joel to go for the drop. The scrum wheeled and Joost got stuck.

So Joel cancelled the move, took a step back himself and just went for it. And it sailed over.

He had a penalty moments later, which he missed, which was good as it kept the ball in their half. And we never switched off from there.

In fact, Ruben then scored a try that wasn't given. It was too big a call for referee Ed Morrison in a final.

What was your reaction when the final whistle went?

I fell right to my knees. I'm a Christian and wanted to say a quick prayer for being in such a wonderful event, not because of the winning.

Then all of a sudden I realised the whole team was around me which was a special moment.

Was it all a little crazy afterwards?

I've said it many times that no Hollywood scriptwriter could have written a better script.

It was just unbelievable on the streets of South Africa. For the first time all the people had come together and all races and religions were hugging each other. It was just wonderful.

And getting the trophy from Nelson Mandela must have been something special?

What happened was Nelson Mandela said "thank you very much for what you've done for South Africa" but I said "thank you for what you've done".

I almost felt like hugging him but it wasn't appropriate, I guess.

Then I lifted the trophy which was unbelievable. I can't describe the feeling as I wouldn't do it justice.

Some captains suggest it's an anti-climax after you lift it. Did you get any sense of that?

No, not at all. If I had the chance I would have stood there forever.

And what about the night out afterwards? Were there lengthy celebrations?

Because we were so focused, we didn't even plan what to do afterwards.

We were late at the function because of traffic, which annoyed other teams. And understandably so.

Then we got to the hotel after the meal and the guys just scattered as nothing was planned.

I ended up hitch-hiking with Joel Stransky and my girlfriend and his wife.

There was no transport as it had all been taken by others but we'd decided to go for a drink. So we hitched.

This car stopped and you should have seen the face of the guy driving it. He would have driven us anywhere in the world that night.

He just said "please get in" and then couldn't speak for the rest of the journey.

Interview by Matt Majendie

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